Months before my first trip to Tanzania, while I was consulting in San Francisco and before Epic Change had ever been imagined, I went to see a live performance of Doubt at a local theatre. It’s one of those plays that requires something of its audience, gives no answers, leaves only questions. So, craving conversation, my friend (and now co-founder) Sanjay and I went to Citizen Cake, because there’s no better place, IMHO, to have thoughtful discussions than over dessert ;)
After a couple of hours of talking it through, we left and as we walked to our car we ran into a homeless African-American man who looked to be in his 60s. It was bitterly cold that night in San Francisco – and he had no shoes. We’d find out later that they had been stolen as he slept at a shelter the night before. He asked for our help. We offered to meet him at a WalGreen’s a block away, and both headed separately in that direction – but the store was closed. We then offered him bus fare to meet us at another drugstore in Union Square. He said he was freezing, and raised his shirt to bare his body so we could scan for weapons, I suppose, as he said something along the lines of “I’m just an old man. I’m not gonna hurt you. Just take me with you.” I was shocked when Sanjay, who’s normally both practical and careful, replied “get in the car.” He did.
As we started to drive, he began to make small talk. It seemed clear that no one had listened to him, or engaged him in casual conversation in some time. At one point he said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you think Michael Jackson was guilty?” Another random topic to spur on our “normal” conversation.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” I responded then asked, “Can I ask you a question?”
It was no longer small talk. There was a man in the back of my car, I’d invited him to tell me his story, and it would change me forever.
He’d been a bicycle courier for decades and had been replaced by someone younger, faster. He looked for another job, but his age and experience left him unemployed for months. He lost his apartment. Rather than embarrass himself and burden his family, he chose to live on the streets. “It’s not easy,” he said, “to apply for jobs when you have no clean clothes, no address for the application, no place to bathe. I don’t smell good.” He didn’t.
We got to Union Square, left him warm in the car, and went into the drugstore. We got blankets, a fleece jacket, thick socks, slippers, anything we could find that looked warm, and went back to the car.
As we unpacked the bag and passed it to him in the backseat, he started to put everything on. Then he started to cry.
I did too.
We asked where he needed to go. He directed us a few blocks away, where he said he’d sleep at a shelter if he could get in. We pulled over and, as he got out of the car, Sanjay gave him $20 and I offered him my business card. I told him to call me, that I could help him with clothes, a place to bathe, his resume. He refused to take it, saying, “you’ve done too much already,” and he disappeared around the corner.
It will not surprise those who know me well that I do not easily take no for an answer. A block later, I got out of the car, walked back around the corner, where I found him, on the ground, crying. He stood up, and this time he took my card. I hugged him and said, believing with all my heart that it would be so, “you’re going to be okay.”
That night, Sanjay and I stayed up all night thinking about how different the world would be if all giving were that intimate. We wondered whether that man hadn’t just given us the most precious asset he had to offer in telling us the story of his life, and whether our small gifts were an act of charity, as it might seem on the surface, or an attempt at fair compensation for for the generosity he’d shown in sharing himself with us. We talked about organizations and tools we could build to help people share their stories so that potential funders could connect to them – directly.
He’s never called, though my number hasn’t changed since I passed him my card. I’m not sure how the story unfolded for him after that night, and I’m still sad that I don’t remember his name.
But here’s what I do know: the hopeful seed that would become Epic Change was planted that night.
And I wish he knew.
This week the fabulous Allison Fine reached out with a few questions to help with research she’s doing for a forthcoming book she’s writing with social media/social change pioneer Beth Kanter. Her question, “What brought you to “storytelling” as an avenue for social change?” led me to finally write down for the first time this story of the birth of Epic Change. Many people think my meeting with Mama Lucy inspired the genesis of Epic Change. She was, indeed, the proximate cause – but the desire to share individual stories to create change was born one cold night in San Francisco months before we’d ever met.
Allison asked a few other great questions in her email interview, so I’ll share more of my answers later this week…
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